Ashes (Part II)

Two and a half hours to go before it all starts again at Adelaide. There's nothing to say (that hasn't been said many times before), except, whether they win the toss or not, England must have a good day today.

The fate of the series could depend upon it.

Praise be to Allah (and Bob Woolmer)

Leaving the Ashes to one side for a further minute, one of the most interesting features of international cricket over the past year has been the way in which the man formerly known as Yousuf Youhana has gone from being a very capable international batsman, but one who'd never really pulled up any trees, to being the most formidable damn run-machine on the planet (with the possible exception of Ricky Ponting).

After his outstanding exploits in England last summer, Mohammad Yousuf has simply gone on churning out the runs in his graceful, understated, but largely unstoppable way, to the point where, today, he passed Viv Richards' record for the most Test runs made in a calendar year, which had stood since 1976. Richards made 1710, Yousuf has made 1788.

Yousuf doesn't bowl, tends to struggle in the field and doesn't say much. When he does talk it's usually just to thank Allah for his munificence. On this occasion he went slightly further, publicly thanking Bob Woolmer for his influence on his glorious journey.

It's nice to see one English coach is doing something right...


Vaughan is Back (Well, Sort Of)

In a week for straw clutching I suppose we should all rejoice at the news that Michael Vaughan has finally made it back on to a cricket field, for the England Academy against the Western Australia Second XI.

Apparently a few of members of the press corps decided to pop over to Perth from Adelaide to see the great man and were rewarded by seeing him get out for a duck.

It was earlier reported on Radio Five Live that he'd left the field while fielding but that the good old ECB media management department had stated that there was 'nothing to worry about'. Doubtless so, but you just know that they'd still say that if he'd just had his leg amputated below the knee in the dressing room, so it's pretty hard to tell what's going on.

Vaughan is making optimistic noises but I'm sure we won't see him in the Test series (Fletcher has said as much). Best just to let him get on with his rehabilitation and hope to see him in the VB series in the new year. Indeed, England are such a poor one-day side that even someone with Vaughan's mediocre record in the short form of the game might improve their chances.

We'll see. In the meantime, the Cathedral End beckons...


Indian Signs

Getting away from you know what for a minute, an excellent article from Cricinfo on Indian domestic cricket - in fact Indian cricket culture - and its effect on the development of players who can excel at international level:




With the Brisbane Test gone the way of all things it seems that the main question that should never be asked of an England cricketer at the moment is whether or not they think that they were under-prepared. It seems obvious to virtually everyone outside the squad that this was the case, yet they're having none of it.

Not that the ECB could have done much more amid the stifling claustrophobia of the current international calendar, but more - and more meaningful - warm-up matches would surely have given England a better chance of competing at the Gabba, especially when the number of long-term casualties in their attack is taken into account. Giles? Out injured for a year. Anderson? Out injured for the majority of the 2006 English season. Flintoff? Ditto. Harmison? Fit, but with his outstanding bowling at Old Trafford during the summer fading from memory and seeming more and more like a mirage.

To clutch at straws, the signs on the fourth day were better, and, with some adjustments in selection (Panesar for Anderson to start with, which would hardly lengthen the tail) and a miraculous rediscovery of form from Harmison, they could yet compete at Adelaide and in the rest of the series.

Personally, though, I wouldn't bet on it.


Digging In, Getting Out

A better day for England, with Collingwood and Pietersen both making runs impressively enough to concern Australia a bit, if not about the prospect of defeat, about the prospect of what their media will say if they fail to win.

At the risk of sounding like Geoff Boycott, who's doing a very good job of sounding like himself on Test Match Special, I was disappointed with the way in which Collingwood, and especially Flintoff, got out.

Boycott regularly bemoans the fact that nobody is prepared to play the type of long, attritional innings which is required to secure draws in Test cricket from the type of position which England found themselves in after the third day, and the way in which Collingwood and Pietersen were playing when I got up (with Collingwood on 92) seemed more in keeping with the later stages of an ODI.

It all looked a little bit too frantic and it wasn't that surprising when Colly got himself stumped on 96. Which brought Flintoff to the crease. Having got to 16 with the aid of some superb shots (one cover drive on the up off Lee was vintage Freddie) he carved an ugly hoick to Langer at long on off Warne. For a player with his talent, Flintoff remains depressingly prone to this type of dismissal, and it seems to me that he needs to become a bit less prone to it if England are really going to compete in the series.

With all that said, they have at least shown that they can compete, and, with KP still there on 92 there's a wafer thin chance that they can get out of Brisbane with a draw tomorrow.

But the new ball beckons, and so does England's fragile tail, so it's still odds against. Time for young Geraint to produce the runs which Duncan always seems to be expecting?



With three days gone at Brisbane, England are out of the game. They have absolutely no realistic chance of winning the Test and only a slender hope of saving it.

Most of the talk this morning has been about Ricky Ponting's decision not to enforce the follow-on, even though Australia were 445 runs ahead on first innings.

One of the most perceptive comments about this was made by ABC's Tim Lane when he pointed out on Test Match Special that many players in the Australian side, Ponting included, were mentally scarred by their experiences in Calcutta in 2001, meaning that they're more aware than most that to enforce the follow-on does not always mean certain victory. It can spell defeat and humiliation. Never forget, also, that Australia are the only team ever to enforce the follow-on in a Test match and lose. And they've done so three times.

So these considerations can always cloud an Australian captain's horizon, even when they seem absurd.

It's also obvious that Ponting and his team want to put the distresses of the 2005 series behind them by putting an under-prepared England side firmly in its place as swiftly and decisively as possible. If they feel it needs a sledgehammer to crack a nut, they'll use one. And they are.

As they trooped off the pitch this morning England's players already had the look of defeated men, but, as Nasser Hussain said on Sky, they need to bear in mind how Ponting is going to feel (and how much stick he's going to get from the Australian media) if they manage to draw the game.

The pitch is clearly still playing well so it should not be beyond England to survive for what will be less than two full days.

Somehow, though, you tend to feel they won't.


Let's Get It Started

I've had enough of all the articles, interviews, previews, trailers, memories, predictions, highlights, lowlights, books, magazines, newspapers and websites.

I've had enough of all the waiting.

The Ashes series starts in about five hours.

Lara Man

Somebody once said that when it comes to the two greatest batsmen of the modern era you're either a 'Lara Man or a 'Tendulkar Man'. Well, ever since I saw him make 152 against England at Trent Bridge in August 1995, I've been a Lara Man.

I haven't written about him here before as he hasn't been doing much since I started this blog in July, but his 216 against Pakistan in Multan is resonant confirmation that, with his 38th birthday on the horizon, he remains as potent a batting artist as ever.

With Tendulkar you get as much technical quality as you could possibly want and a good many shots which are so sublime that nobody else around (except possibly Lara) could play them. Lara, though, exhibits an even more remarkable brand of brilliance, distinguished by the priceless ability to play really large innings when they're most required, comprising periods of studied defence and coruscating attacking shots, all emanating from the most distinctive backlift in the game. It's possible, occasionally and if everything goes right, to keep Tendulkar relatively quiet. It's much, much harder to do so with Lara.

I'm old enough to have seen Viv Richards, Greg Chappell and Gavaskar at their best, but I firmly believe Lara to be the greatest batsman I've ever seen and it looks likely that he'll be back in England again next spring.

I will certainly be at Lord's and possibly Chester-le-Street. I hope he's there too.


The Oval, 12th September 2005

With it all about to start again I thought it would be good to post some of the pictures I took at The Oval last September. I was also thinking about writing something about that day but I can't find the time to do it justice at the moment. Another time, maybe.
If anybody fancies paying me to go to any of the forthcoming Tests and take some similar photos (perhaps without the element of English triumph), please get in touch.


It was good to see England finding a bit of form against South Australia in Adelaide, the main beneficiaries from time at the crease being Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood.

You tend to feel that Collingwood's temperament is so strong that he'll do okay wherever he bats but the loss of Trescothick has thrust more pressure on to the slight shoulders of Bell.

It's clear from reading around the web and the print media that quite a few people still have doubts about Bell, largely based on his diffident and ineffectual performances during the 2005 series.

I'd like to be able to say that I don't have any doubts at all, but I can't. However, I am firmly convinced that Bell is a world-class player, and, with a bit of luck and a following wind (the 'Fremantle Doctor' perhaps) he could do very well indeed.

For England's sake he needs to.


Mind Games

There's not much I can add to Peter Roebuck's superb summary of the Trescothick situation in the Sydney Morning Herald here or to what David Foot says here.

All very sad, and doubly so for those of us who've followed Marcus's career since he was a lad and thought that the outwardly balanced insouciance of his temperament would make him an unlikely candidate to suffer this type of problem. But that probably just illustrates how little we know both of him and his condition.

In hindsight there was always a good chance that this would happen, so the decision to take him to Australia must be questioned; I suppose nobody (including Marcus himself) really knew how likely his condition was to recur, but, having done so once, it's bound to be regarded as likely to do so again, making it unlikely that the selectors will be prepared to take any risks with him in the future. And, if he can't tour, then there can be no point in picking him for home Tests either. There must be a very good chance indeed, therefore, that his Test career has run its course, just over a month before his 31st birthday.

That's as maybe. If it has, well, he's done okay. Bloody well, in fact.

Myself and a good few others down here in the west will be hoping that he can flourish once again for Somerset, and, with his family near at hand, there must be a good chance that he can. I spend a large part of every summer in the Ian Botham Stand at Taunton, and we haven't seen Marcus round that way too much in recent years.

As and when he takes the field again in a Somerset sweater, I hope I'm there.


I've felt for a long time that there was a good chance that the concerns about Australian crowds behaving in an abusive and even racist manner towards Monty Panesar would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The news that he was apparently abused by an isolated spectator during the England game against New South Wales doesn't bring this any closer to reality but does indicate the possibility of further problems down the line. Hopefully the Australian authorities are on top of it.

In the meantime, the person (and I'm assuming it was a man) who abused Panesar deserves the widest possible castigation for his sheer stupidity. According to Cricinfo the Sydney Daily Telegraph reported that the spectator had derided Panesar as 'a stupid Indian' and had asked 'What are you doing playing in the English side? You're not English'.

If you ever want to borrow my Playfair, mate, you're welcome to it. It will show that Panesar was born in Luton (Bedfordshire, England) on 25th April 1982 and is therefore, demonstrably (we'll assume Monty was telling the truth when he filled in Bill Frindall's last questionnaire) English. In fact, he's a damn sight more English than one of his team-mates, who was born in Pietermaritzburg, which, last time I checked, was in South Africa.

Not that I'm inviting you to have a go at KP. Best just stay well away from cricket.


Debate Or No Debate?

I haven't been around for a few days and already things have moved on. As anyone with enough interest in cricket to be here will know, England duly lost to John Howard's team in Canberra and have since moved on to Sydney where they are currently making a slightly better fist of a three-day game against New South Wales. I don't think it was necessary to lose too much sleep over the Prime Minister's game as it's normal for England touring sides to struggle in the early stages of tours, although, as the preparation time before the first Test in Brisbane is so short (with just four playing days left), it's been good to see that things have gone better at the SCG.

I was amused to hear Andrew Strauss's sideways reference the other day to the fact that 'Gatt's team' (the successful 1986-87 party led by Mike Gatting) were described as having only three things wrong with them before the first Test of that series - 'they can't bat, they can't bowl and they can't field'. Strauss used this as an example of the type of jibe that's traditionally wheeled out by the Australian press when England teams arrive on their shores but he had clearly forgotten (or, as he was just nine at the time, probably never knew) that that famous aside was penned by an English journalist, Martin Johnson, who made his name with The Independent in the late eighties by employing a deft range of sarcastic wit.

But that's beside the point. Of far greater significance in the overall scheme of things is the fact that Fletcher came out and confirmed what most people had assumed already, namely that an early decision had been taken that Geraint Jones was going to go into the series (and doubtless finish it) as the England wicket-keeper. I wouldn't want to say that I told you so, but I always had the feeling (and wrote so here) that Chris Read was selected for the final two Tests of the English summer despite rather than because of Fletcher, and I always felt that Jones would be back for Brisbane. Of course, the fact that Jones is felt by Fletcher (and apparently Flintoff) to be the better batsman has been advanced as the reason, but it seems unfair to judge Read on his poor displays with the willow in India when he actually batted quite well (and at least as well as Jones had been doing for the previous year) when he played against Pakistan at Headingley and the Oval. Also, although Jones was ostensibly sent away to score runs for Kent, he didn't do so. This said, I agree with Will Luke at The Corridor that Read's keeping wasn't that great, especially in India, although part of the problem is that a myth grew up around him when he wasn't in the Test side that he was a really exceptional keeper when, although he's a conspicuously more natural gloveman than his rival, he's not, and never will be, a Jack Russell, let alone a Bob Taylor.

I also agree that Jones's more orthodox technique and experience of growing up in Australian conditions make him more likely to make runs in the series.

It's a huge vote of confidence for Jones but he'd better make damn sure he keeps as well as he can and makes some serious runs, or I can see the whole debate starting again by Christmas (although I have no doubt that, in Fletcher's mind, there's no debate). Either way, I tend to take the view that they're both just keeping the seat warm for Steven Davies and, if Jones fails in the Ashes series, we may be seeing him in the side sooner (against West Indies next spring) rather than later.

In the meantime we'll be able to amuse ourselves by going back to thinking about Giles and Panesar. With those two you just know that in Fletcher's mind there is a debate, whereas in the minds of most England followers, there simply isn't.


This Way Madness Lies

Well, it all starts tonight. Somewhat unexpectedly Sky are carrying coverage of England's game against the Prime Minister's XI from Canberra, so I reckon I might tune in to some of it. Come to think of it, it's not that surprising, as Sky have been hyping the Test series for weeks and, as this represents the start of the preliminaries to the first act of the main event of the most eagerly-awaited Test series since the dawn of time (and possibly before), I suppose they were always going to be tempted to show something that may well turn out to be just another one-day match. It would be nice, though, for England to start with a win, in which case it probably won't seem like just another one-day game (as England usually lose those).

Is it just me, or is anybody else currently filled with foreboding about what the series may bring? It's been built up to such an extent that reality seems bound to fall short of expectation, and Australia, from where I'm standing, currently look like firm favourites.

Even more so if England do what Fletcher seemed to be pondering earlier in the week - playing Ashley Giles instead of Monty Panesar to strengthen the batting because an extra bowler will be required to cover the fact that Flintoff's not going to be fit to bowl his share of overs, at least in the early part of the series. Tim de Lisle marshals the arguments against doing this very well here.

All very hard to argue with, unless, of course you're Duncan Fletcher. It's hardly a secret that Fletcher has his favourites. Ashley Giles is one, Geraint Jones another.

What price Panesar and Read for Brisbane?


Mark Vermeulen

My first reaction, on reading on Cricinfo that Mark Vermeulen was being questioned by Zimbabwean police in connection with arson attacks on the Zimbabwe cricket academy and the ZCU offices was to laugh. Not because it was remotely funny, but because I could hardly believe that he - even Mark Vermeulen - could have done it. When I read that he'd been charged (which looked inevitable) and got to grips with some of the background to what's been going on in his life over the last few months, I felt very sad.

When he hit the news after he threatened members of the crowd while playing in the Lancashire League last summer it seemed to be just another example of the suspect temperament which had hindered the deveIopment of his Test career, but his latest actions (if, as seems likely, he was responsible for the fires) have taken things into an entirely different realm. As Martin Williamson wrote on Cricinfo, Vermeulen's behaviour has apparently been extremely erratic recently, even by his standards, and all the evidence suggests that he is suffering from a depressive illness, which may have been caused or at least exacerbated by the two serious blows on the head which he received earlier in his career. For the time being it is good news that he has avoided jail, but, in the longer term he may not be so lucky and one can only fear for where he might end up.

Although Zimbabwean cricket has been pushed to the brink by the actions of a self-serving and perverse governing elite, the academy was apparently an excellent facility which was going to have an important role to play in the context of the country's attempts to regain its former status. It seems truly outrageous that the actions of a player who has tasted Test cricket could do such harm to the chances of younger players whose only aspiration is to follow in his footsteps, but one can only hope that there are mitigating circumstances and that Vermeulen gets the help which he surely needs.

The Drugs Don't Work (But Your Hair Always Goes In The End)

Well, maybe they do. But, as nobody ever admits what they've taken, you can't be sure.

What we can be sure of, after the actions of the PCB last week, is that we won't be seeing Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif around this way for a while. In the case of Shoaib, it may be that his career in top-level cricket has come to an end. Mohammad Asif, apparently treated more leniently on account of his rural upbringing and consequent lack of awareness about drugs, will be seen again. He's far too good to go missing.

It's been what Pakistani cricket followers (and players) might regard as a bittersweet week. They've lost the services of their two best seam bowlers but their umpiring bete noir (Darrell Hair, in case you hadn't noticed) has been fired from the ICC Elite Panel.

I wonder if they'd agree to Hair continuing to umpire them if they could have the two bowlers back?

I think that's what's called a rhetorical question...

Nine And A Half Weeks

I haven't been around much over the last couple of weeks - work and rugby trips to Gloucester, Cornwall and up the sunlit Exe Valley to Tiverton have seen to that. Having dissected Gloucester's Heineken Cup defeat against Agen over a post-match beer at Kingsholm with my Welsh mate Alan, our thoughts turned to the Ashes series. We were both fairly pessimistic (this was before we'd heard that England had managed to beat the West Indies in the dreaded Champions Trophy but somehow I don't think that knowledge would have altered our views all that much) and the eventual consensus of the ideas, issues and theories which we tried to get our heads round as the wind picked up and the gloom descended was that England could win the series and retain the Ashes, but that it would depend on various pieces of a large and currently very messy jigsaw falling into place.

Where does the average England fan's mind go to when thinking about the Ashes? Unless you're trying very hard it goes straight back to the late summer of 2005, that's where. And the single most important factor in England's win was the outstanding form of Andrew Flintoff. Sure, there were valuable contributions at one stage or another from a wide range of players, some of whom weren't even on the plane which has just landed in Australia (Michael Vaughan, Simon Jones), but Flintoff, with his prodigious ability and guileless charisma, was always at the heart of things.

Which is why, as Brisbane beckons, England need, more than anything else, Flintoff to prove his fitness to bowl long and penetrative spells and produce innings that feature the type of boisterous power which is second nature to him, while also displaying a degree of rationality in shot selection which has often seemed entirely foreign.

In India the signs weren't hopeful. He didn't bowl much and made few runs, looking for all the world like someone who hadn't played properly for several months (which he was). And now he has just two warm-up matches in which to rediscover some semblance of the form which made him everyone's favourite cricketer just over a year ago.

Of course, other players also need to 'step up to the plate' (as Duncan Fletcher might say). Harmison needs to quickly re-discover the reverberating hostility and pace which made him the world's leading bowler in 2004, England's batting tyros, Ian Bell (the new - and very welcome - ICC Emerging Player of the Year) and Alastair Cook, need to find their feet immediately against Warne and the rest, Marcus has to start batting as we know he can at the top of the order, Monty has to drop it on his usual length and find his usual turn and whichever wicket-keeper survives the selection process (and I'm convinced it will again be Jones) has to hold everything and make some runs as well.

If most of this happens then England will have a decent chance of retaining the urn, even against an Australian team with home advantage and which will be more strongly motivated than ever before.
If some or none of it happens England are in trouble. The signs aren't great, and my current feeling is that England are going to be in trouble.

As somebody once said, though, 'a week is a long time in politics'. The only problem here is that we're talking about cricket, but experience has taught me that nine and a half weeks (as somebody once called a film) is a long time in cricket.

See you at the SCG in early January. It's going to be an interesting ride.

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